Time off and gaining perspective: reactive vs. action-driven work

Last fall I got in the habit of taking every seventh week off. Something about working hard for six weeks then resting on the seventh seems fitting for one who spends their time creating. On my week off, I turn to less urgent work and give myself permission to throw out everything that makes demands on me.

The only appointment I need to keep: a day-long retreat at the spa where I cook myself repeatedly in the sauna or scented steam room, float around in pools of various temperatures, then relax by a fire in a hammock reading a book of choice. This week’s book was The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck by Mark Manson, and wow, what a great book to read on a day when you’re in the mood to break the mold before heading back into the forge — a bit of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, with a more contemporary application, in the vein of George Carlin.

I find that, with the urgency stripped aside, and that mandatory mental health day at the spa to uncoil any unseen springs, I turn to deeper work. I still write every day, first thing (because that’s something I want to do, never something pressed upon me), but even so, complete cessation is not the point of this week off. The point is being able to really stop and connect to the infrastructure beneath all the work I do, those deeper “why” forces that drive me and often get buried in the chaff of go-go-go.

Active work vs. reactive work

We all have responsibilities we can’t avoid. I mentioned in this post about putting your writing first the concept of Eisenhower’s priority matrix. Those responsibilities we can’t avoid fall under the category of reactive work. Whether they be important (a customer has showed up and needs your attention) or unimportant (the phone is ringing), they linger around you like a cloud of flies and for every time you swat at them, they come just come back; for every demanding task you crush, others seem to swarm in from some hidden breeding ground and you’ll never get the things done you want to get done.

Action-driven work on the other hand is the things you really want to be doing but don’t have time to do when you’re busy reacting. If you’re a writer and you want to finish your book, or get time in on your writing projects, this is your active work. This kind of work is not being pressed upon you. You have to take action and decide you’re doing it for the sake of its importance. You’re acting upon it, rather than it acting upon you.

I’ve struggled a lot with this one. For those of you who might envy me for being free to flex my work time, don’t, because one trades the inflexibility of a set schedule for a work queue that has no end to it save for self-imposed boundaries. I’m the senior editor for the editing division of my company, the director of the whole company, which now includes a publishing division (for which I’m also the production manager and general director) and a cover art division. With that comes the need to put out fires, coordinate now more than ten different team members, oversee numerous projects going on simultaneously, and find time for the editing jobs I take on personally (we’ll get to this last one below).

Now, yes, I’m free to flex my time and decide how I want to perform in all these roles. But there’s an insidious force at work that might not be obvious (unless you’re also an entrepreneur and can relate): psychological distress. True, I can neglect the work I need to be doing, but this will have consequences. I can decide to black out the world and open my manuscript to steal away glorious hours of writing, but the whole while in the back of my mind I’m distracted by thoughts about the pieces in motion I should be tending to, the pile of to-dos that really, if I powered down on them, I’d be ahead — until tomorrow when more things come in.

And on and on it goes, a cloud of flies swarming around me which I’m swatting at with half as much attention as the attention that’s going into the important work I’m trying to actively pursue.

Clearing the air: the real purpose of down time

Let’s say instead of swatting at the flies, you decided you are going to stop everything you’re doing, get a fly-swatter and a bug bomb, suit up if necessary, then commit yourself 100% to exterminating every single fly in the vicinity, seeking out nests and destroying them, going to the source, no survivors. That might take a bit of time, but in the end, when you’re done, you’ll return to your work and guess what? You can focus entirely on important work that you choose to do, as 100% committed as you were when you decided to solve your fly problem — because there’s no flies now to bother you!

That’s more or less what goes on for me during those weeks I take off. Remove the distractions, not for the sake of resting and relaxing (though I do designate an entire day for “extra sleep” in addition to my spa day), but for the sake of active analysis. My mind turns to a different sort of work, more of a relaxed meta-work where I take the time away from my usual routine to assess how I can better improve.

It was during the previous holiday I took in April when I realized the importance of putting writing first, no matter what. For the last 7 weeks, I’ve begun every day with 2 hours of writing, no matter what. My team knows I do this, so there’s no psychological distress for me that I’m ignoring my other duties. (That’s not entirely true, there is, but I’m getting better and not feeding that fire; it really is a bit of a boogeyman scenario.)

During this last holiday I realized the importance of activating a principle I heard about from the former CEO of Moosehead Brewery: “Nose in, hands out.” With this insight in mind, I made a to-do list (my fly extermination process) and followed up on some difficult actions to help me step into more of a director role — the hardest of these being the choice to no longer take on any editing work.

The end goal: entering this week I have been able to focus my work time on bigger project to help grow our company and function more effectively as a director. One night, when watching Star Trek: the Next Generation, I commented to my husband that I need to become Picard and learn how to channel “command mode”, and I liked the term so much I’ve written it down on my desk to remind me of this whenever I’m asked to take on something that will pull me out of this role.

The results: this week, I finished writing a course for the education website Highbrow. Highbrow delivers courses in the form of 10 emails, delivered once a day over 10 days, with more than 300,000 subscribers.

I reached out several weeks ago to ask if I could contribute something, and one of the co-founders suggested I write about how to market a book online. This was a big and very important project that would have been pushed to the wayside — blogging and outreach work are two tasks that can easily get buried in the swarm of reactive work — but when it comes to the work day and what I do for the company, these are among the most important avenues of work!

A never ending onion of importance

In my heart I’m a writer, first and foremost. Far, far down the road, I’d see myself becoming the creative director of my company but my time investment would be in writing. I’d be a spoke on the wheel for my company, as well as a wind blowing it in the right direction.

That’s the big picture anyway, and to get there requires defining the intermediate steps. Most fundamental (and most long-term) is the process of investing in my writing. More intermediate is the process of growing my company into the vehicle which will publish and market my books on par with what is put out traditionally. The latter is not merely subordinate to the former, because in my heart my prime drive behind why I write is for the sake of creating community around my work; likewise, the process of growing my company — the vehicle which will carry my writing to my readers — is about creating community around the type of work that brings the touches of the traditional publishing industry to self-publishing books.

It might be a long time until I get to the place I’m envisioning, but until that point, I look forward to my weeks off. That’s where the magic happens, another step deeper into the onion layers of importance.

I’ve deviated a bit from my usual style today to share a bit more personally about my process and my work, but I hope you might find some inspiration in it. Please do share your thoughts, or shoot me an email if something here has got you percolating.



About John Robin

John Robin is an epic fantasy writer, professional editor, and lover of imaginary worlds. He write stories about magic and myth, human suffering and the power to rise above it. He loves world building, coffee shops, mathematics, chess, and is an avid author community builder.
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One Response to Time off and gaining perspective: reactive vs. action-driven work

  1. Pingback: Maintaining your writing discipline: staying focused in an age of distraction | John Robin's Blog

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